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Saving Face Can’t Make You Safe – HIV and the AAPI Community

Hector Vargas highlights events across the country supporting the Annual National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and discusses the challenges facing AAPI communities in relation to HIV/AIDS.

Saving face can’t make you safe. Talk about HIV—for me, for you, for everyone.” The slogan is reflective of how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders need to embrace the growing concern of HIV in our communities. Judging by recent activities the efforts to educate the community about HIV is having an impact.

On May 19, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders gathered at more than 20 community events for the 8th Annual National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. From Jacksonville, Florida to Upper Tumon, Guam to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Honolulu, Hawaii, AAPIs met to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, encourage testing and and prevention efforts, and seek an end to the stigma about HIV in the community. The events featured free HIV testing and counseling, educational forums, video screenings and other activities.

The challenges facing AAPI communities in relation to HIV/AIDS share common threads with the priorities of the White House Initiative on AAPIs. The testing rate among AAPIs is extremely low-, and nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans and more than half of Pacific Islanders have never been tested for HIV.  Additionally, 1 in 3 AAPIs who are HIV-infected are unaware of their status.

Although HIV infection rates are significantly lower among AAPIs compared with other racial and ethnic groups, challenges remain.  That’s why the President’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy recognizes the need to address HIV prevention in AAPI populations.  Specifically, the Strategy says that federal and state agencies should consider efforts to support surveillance activities to better characterize HIV among smaller populations such as AAPIs.

Also, because of language and cultural barriers, many AAPIs cannot access many existing HIV prevention programs and materials. And stigma within the AAPI communities is a significant barrier to effectively addressing HIV and AIDS. The fear of rejection—by family and friends—for those AAPIs who might be tested for HIV, let alone anyone who might test positive for HIV, prevents many in the AAPI community from getting tested in the first place.

I recently participated in a webinar co-hosted by the Initiative and the Banyan Tree Project on “HIV and Stigma in AAPI communities.” The most compelling aspects to the webinar were stories shared by videos of AAPIs who are living with HIV and their experiences.

There is heartbreak, fear and even shame in those stories. And there is amazing strength and resilience.

And that is what National HIV & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is all about: empowering our own AAPI communities to overcome the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone in our community.

Hector Vargas is Executive Director of the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association and serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.